“MIDWINTER SPRING IS its own season,” writes T.S. Eliot in “Little Gidding,” one of The Four Quartets. “Sempiternal, though sodden towards sundown, / Suspended in time between pole and tropic.”
I’ve always loved that description of “midwinter spring.” I’ve been thinking of it today because it’s the perfect midwinter spring day here in the Pacific Northwest—uncertain moments of sun in a metallic gray sky, followed by drifts of snowflakes, some of which settled overnight on the snowdrops and hellebores and cyclamen (see above) that are already blooming, and the tête-a-tête daffodils just about to open in the big blue pot next to the dining room window.
But I never knew what “sempiternal” actually meant till I looked it up today: it’s an adjective that means eternal and unchanging; everlasting. Synonyms include enduring, long-lived, abiding, continuing, remaining, long-term, surviving, permanent, deep-rooted, indelible, perennial, perpetual, never-ending. Antonyms include short-lived and ephemeral. It comes from late Latin sempiternus, from “semper”, which means always, plus “aeternus”, which means eternal. It seems like a strange word—a more eternal eternity, like eternity-plus somehow? (Now what does that remind me of . . . ? Got it! The last two years!)
But I think what Eliot is getting at is the never-endingness of the feeling of waiting for what is almost here, but not quite. The time between one “season”, another word I’ve always liked, and the next. According to my American Heritage dictionary, a season is, first, “one of the four equal natural divisions of the year, spring, summer, autumn and winter, indicated by the passage of the sun through an equinox or solstice . . .” Second, it can be “a recurrent period that is characterized by certain occupations, festivities, or crops.” Or it can be “a suitable, natural, or convenient time,” or, indeed, “any period of time.”
To me, the word season always carries within it the feeling of limitation, a period of time that won’t last. As the gorgeous English summer slides into autumn in The Walled Garden, my protagonist, Lucy Silver realizes that “no matter how much she wants to, she can’t put the leaves back on the trees or make the flowers keep blooming. The fallen leaf will always be followed by the bare branch, and the bare branch by the green buds, eventually culminating in the lush flowering of summer and the fruits of autumn.”
So, to get back to Eliot, he appears to be saying that midwinter spring is its own season, i.e. a temporary period of time, yet it’s also everlasting. Until I wrote this post, I had no idea these lines held this internal paradox about time. And yet, that’s exactly how I feel today. The sun is present but elusive, offering no warmth. There are flowers and new green leaves emerging, but they’re covered with snow.
“Where is the summer,” asks Eliot, “the unimaginable / Zero summer?” and we are right there with him, wondering, will it ever be summer?
Yet, the answer is already coming into being—even as we doubt. Despite all the troubling and unsettling things going on in our world, summer will come. We will change our heavy sweaters and coats for shorts and linen dresses, and eat outside on the patio again, and complain about how hot it is, rather than how cold.
No matter how endless it seems, my friends, this is a season. “In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing / The soul’s sap quivers,” says Eliot, and we know this. We feel ourselves reaching for that which we long for, but which is not here yet. We are not quite ourselves, especially in this year of all years, but summer will come.
Thankfully, it’s already coming!